Seems no matter where I go these just-before-summer days I smell the sweet fragrance of warm days spent playing in my backyard. One of our favorite spots was a rose thicket with an opening just large enough for my sister and me to get through and just small enough for my parents NOT to be able to get through. Our thorny fortress was a quiet place of shared secrets, thoughtful conversations, and resting on our backs, hands clasped over stomachs, gazing through the leaves, planning the future. Giggling as our parents looked for us, yelling our names, walking past our private get-away, not stooping down to peer into the prickly wilds of our secret place. For a couple of weeks our castle was engulfed in fragrance. Two scents dominated these early summer days… rose and honeysuckle. When our timing was just right we would carefully pick honeysuckle flowers by the handful, tuck them into the folds of our t-shirts and crawl into our white-flower covered fort. Once inside, we would carefully remove the inner workings of each honeysuckle flower for the one tiny drop of sweetness it provided. Repeating this again and again until our stock of flowers was a tattered pile on our rose-fort floor and our mouths coated in the nectar of this wild vine.
We didn’t know then that the flowers we enjoyed so much were Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and Japanese (Hall’s) Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). These days those two plants top every invasive plant list. They have escaped cultivation and now thrive in our natural woodlands and wild places. In fact, they thrived back then, which is how we were able to enjoy them in our yard. Nobody planted them there. They were just there. They aggressively out-compete native wildflowers and shrubs, in some places creating a impenetrable tangle of thorns and vines, through which no trees will grow and no wildlife will wander. The honeysuckle strangling even large trees.
How did they get here?
How did those plants get in our yard? Our parents didn’t plant them. They were just there, on the edge of the oak-pine forest and the gravel road. Multiflora rose was introduced to the United States in the 1800s as a hardy rootstock for the less hardy ornamental roses. Using the rootstock of multiflora rose made it possible to grow fussier, large flowered roses in the northeast. By the mid 1900s the plant was being used as erosion control along installed roadways, advancing around the east coast as newly refined asphalt and concrete made possible paved paths throughout the nation. Multiflora rose was also planted as a living fence for livestock. One look at the gorgeous flowers and a deep inhale of the fragrance offers clues as to how the Japanese Honeysuckle got here. This vine was brought over from China as an ornamental in the 1800s. Once here the aggressive vine was also used for erosion control. Both have become a food source for a variety of birds and small mammals. Some people think because they have become food, they have become a valuable part of the ecosystem and should remain in the forest. The animals have adapted to eat theses fruits because there natural food no longer exists in quantities sufficient for survival because the rose and honeysuckle have out-completed them. As my dad always said to our upturned noses at the dinner table “What doesn’t satisfy will fill”, the wildlife is filling up on these exotic fruits because nothing else is available.
But I REALLY like the smell!
I understand there is nothing quite like the white cloud of flowers of a multiflora rose or the perfumed air surrounding a Japanese Honeysuckle vine. There are some options that will give you what you enjoy while giving the wildlife what they need. As far as roses go – try any of the native roses available. Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina or R. virginiana) will work for sunny dry to moist landscapes, offering clouds of single pink fragrant flowers. For those of you with wet areas in your gardens, Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) may be the answer for you. As far as honeysuckle goes, that’s tougher. Our native Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) doesn’t have a fragrance to speak of. It’s bold coral flowers attract hummingbirds anywhere it grows (I have seem them hovering around flowers in downtown Newark, NJ!), but if it is scent you are looking for, you may have to go in a different direction. Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) blooms around the same time and fills the air with its sweet scent. Many of our native milkweeds offer up sweet scented blossoms, though you have to get up close and personal with these to get the full effect. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the milkweed with my favorite smell.
As a person who thrives on finding small wildflowers and experiencing nature as natural as I can get it, I am happy Japanese Honeysuckle and Multiflora Rose are no longer sold in the capacities they once were and that they are banned from sale in some places. I am glad conservation groups and land stewards are out there battling these plants,removing them by the acre to make room for those that should be there. But I secretly relish happening upon a spot of roses along a trail, missed by conservation groups, imagining the protective fort inside those thorns. And I will always stop to sip the nectar of the Japanese Honeysuckle flowers, taking in their perfume and thinking back to the adventures of summer days past, secretly glad there are still sweetly scented pockets of summer memories to be had.